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9.04.2008

Literary Lineage and Closing Content

Man, back one day and already sleeping on the job! Slacker...

I wanted to write today about two things:
  • composing the third act

  • Bradbury, Matheson and King and their influence on speculative fiction

As I mentioned in Wednesday's post, I've had a productive summer in terms of reading. Lots of pretty good books in that bunch. But that said, I was disappointed with a couple of the endings. I think wrapping up a novel is the toughest part of the writing process. I also think that the majority of readers place the strongest emphasis for their overall impression of a book on whether or not the ending works.

Because writing is such a subjective artistic field (which one isn't, outside of American Idol pop?), I know not all of these suggestions will carry water. That's fine. But these are some of the things that I look for in an ending:



  • Redemption--I'm a sucker for a story that delivers on the promise of personal growth or character epiphany. Think of Johnny Marinville in King's Desparation or Costner's portrayal of Butch Haynes in the underrated A Perfect World;

  • A downer ending--I know that runs contrary to the note above, but both ends of the spectrum have their allure. I loved the dark conclusion of Willy Vlautin's Motel Life, largely because that was the way it had to end. Our protagonist lives; his tragically nihilistic brother dies--anonymous and shabby in a seedy motel. The conclusion captures the fatigue of their dim lives in a way that winning the lottery or getting the girl never could.

  • Framing--I like a circular narrative, particularly when the setting is an important symbol in the story. Lonesome Dove's final scenes take much of their emotional power from Woodrow Call's diligent stewardship of the leg-light Gus McCrae back to that titular dusty town in Texas. This fantastic western kicks off in Lonesome Dove, and despite the cross-continental cattle drive, it comes home in the finale.
  • An open ending--another contradiction. We don't need to go home if the story is best left open. I like the ending of The Road. I'd like to think the boy grows into a solid young man. I'd like to think he becomes a leader--a change agent in a world gone sour. More likely he finds himself here, but there's a sense of freedom in thinking about the options. I feel the same way about the conclusion of Spike Lee's 25th Hour, and I'm one of the (minority) defenders of King's conclusion to his Dark Tower saga.

On the other side, tread carefully in these areas:

  • Ghosts in the various machines. Stay away from time travel when it hasn't been developed in the plot. Roger that with multiple personalities.
  • Don't sacrifice the plot to a flimsy surprise ending. Surprises are great, when they work. But if you need to bring a plot development from extreme left field to coax an audience into dropping its collective jaw, then consider revision.

I'm reading Duel. The stories, for the most part, are tightly drawn. The majority of them trend toward science fiction. Bradbury wrote the foreword for the edition listed on the right of the blog there, and his influence is clear in much of Matheson's work.

It's clear that Matheson was taken with Sci-fi Ray. In terms of tone, pacing and content, stories like "Third from the Sun," "Return," and "F--" borrow heavily from The Martian Chronicles. I like Sci-fi Ray, but I'll admit that I like Weird Ray a little better.

Nasty Ray.

To draw the line between the two, read The October Country. That's a danged collection, friends.

The short story "Duel" has been the best so far. Matheson puts on a compositional clinic in blending the technical act of driving with the emotional exhaustion of hot pursuit. The story screams toward conclusion, and it ends with just that: a long, cathartic scream.

"Lover When You're Near Me" is a harrowing story of prolonged rape. Matheson's creation of a vindictive, obsessed female antagonist is haunting. In this case, Lover (an alien) uses telepathy to molest the human male supervisor of a mining outpost deep in space. The sense of dread here is palpable, and Matheson's depiction of the mental assault is reminiscent of King's work in Dreamcatcher.

That shouldn't come as any surprise. King has called Matheson the most important writer in his life. Both King and Matheson, however, owe more than a little to Bradbury. Matheson's "Shipshape Home" and King's "The House on Maple Street" borrow, again, from The Martian Chronicles.

Time and again, Ray's voice and tone and cutting edge storytelling show their imprint in all of us that have followed.

To my thinking, Ray's work has pretty much dictated the direction of speculative fiction for sixty years. I see his stuff in Gaiman. I see it in Lansdale. It's all over the map in our little corner of the literary universe.

And you know what? I'll take him. I'll put him up against all of the other giants any day. He has all of the charm of Twain, all of the linguistic beauty of Cather, all of the sturdy elegance of Hemingway.

Ray is the sun in this here solar system, pilgrim. Check out his work here.

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